The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 world powers are proceeding smoothly, and yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry announced that implementation of the November 24 interim accord would begin in earnest on January 20. According to a State Department transcript, Kerry said matter-of-factly:
This afternoon, this evening, we concluded negotiations constructively and positively so that on January 20th, in just a few short days, we will begin implementation of the Joint Plan of Action that we and our partners agreed to with respect to Iran in Geneva. As of that day, January 20th, for the first time in almost a decade, Iran’s nuclear program will not be able to advance—in fact, parts of it will be rolled back—while we start negotiating a comprehensive agreement to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
And according to the Tehran Times, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, said the same thing, adding that a few minor stumbling blocks had been successfully resolved.
Behind the scenes, however, the White House and the State Department are furious about growing pressure in the US Senate—led by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—to legislate new economic sanctions against Iran, an action that would torpedo the talks. (The November 24 agreement explicitly rules out new sanctions while negotiations proceed.) In a stunningly brutal response, the White House said that the bill “would divide the international community, drive the Iranians to take a harder line, and possibly end negotiations.” More significantly, the White House accused members of Congress who support the Menendez bill of wanting to go to war:
If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.
The White House statement outraged hawks, neoconservatives and Israel lobby types who’ve been pushing hard to wreck the Iran-P5+1 accord, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called an “historic mistake.” In a statement in response to the White House, one hawkish group, United Against Nuclear Iran, said:
It is wrong for the White House to continue questioning the integrity and motives of anyone who supports more sanctions on Iran. It is nonsensical and out of bounds to say that a bipartisan majority of U.S. Senators secretly wants war with Iran.… It is…more than reasonable for one to posit that further sanctions—with delayed implementation, humanitarian carve-outs, reversibility, and broad discretionary and waiver authority for the President by the way—are in order, and it is certainly not a scheme to start a war.
Leading the charge, behind the scenes, in support of the Menendez bill is New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer, according to The Hill, which quotes Mark Kirk, the Republican from Illinois who drafted the bill with Menendez, saying of Schumer: “He’s an original cosponsor. I would say he probably has the greatest sway inside his conference.” The Hill reports that so far fifty-nine senators back the bill, adding that some analysts within the Israel lobby say that enough Democrats secretly support it that they are close to enough votes to override a veto by President Obama.
In a background briefing by State Department officials over the weekend, the officials used particularly sharp language in explaining why the administration so strongly opposes the Menendez-Kirk legislation. First, an official said:
With respect to the Iranians, they have communicated publicly in that Foreign Minister Zarif has said that new sanctions would cause them to leave the negotiation. So that’s the public position taken by the Iranian Government. I will also say, as I think we’ve told you in the past, that our intelligence community has assessed that new sanctions enacted during the negotiations are likely to derail that negotiation.
So in other words, if the bill passes, the talks are over.
The official added:
We strongly believe that there should not be new sanctions passed during this negotiation. In terms of what we would do, the President made very clear that he will veto any new sanctions that are passed during the life of this negotiation. And I think the stakes are very high here.… Why would you put all of that progress at risk to pass a sanctions bill that the administration is not asking for and that risks dividing the international community?
Addressing the specifics of the implementation plan, a State Department official outlined the way things will work on January 20:
Beginning January 20th, when the agreement comes into force for implementation…Iran will for the first time in a decade halt the progress of its nuclear program and roll it back in key respects.… The beginning of the dilution and conversion of the stockpile will be implemented as a part of this agreement. The limitations on Iran’s enrichment capability and its installation of additional centrifuges comes into force. The new and more frequent inspections that will take place at Iran’s nuclear sites will allow us to both learn more about the Iranian program and verify that it’s keeping its commitments. And as we told you around the Joint Plan of Action, that includes both the enrichment facilities, the production facilities, and importantly, the Arak facility as well.